You may have heard the term neurotypical, either in conversation, or perhaps reading through a psychological publication. You may also have heard the term neuroatypical, another term synonymous with it, neurodivergent, or simply just atypical. There is even a new show on Netflix called Atypical, which is about a family with a child on the autism spectrum.
The term neurotypical is used to refer to anyone who does not have any developmental disabilities such as autism and ADD/ADHD. It has also been broadened in recent years to include people who do not have any sort of mental health condition, including anxiety, depression and other such conditions.
Citing myself as an example, from grade school through early college, I struggled with academics, along with chronic anxiety and worry, but seemed to function “well enough” in many areas of society to the point that my diagnoses got missed. I often heard from teachers and others who were well-meaning, “she could do it if she just applied herself”. I had tutors in math from late grade school through early college; yet, no one came to the conclusion that I may have some sort of learning disability that made it difficult for me to move forward in my academic studies, or in life in general for that matter. After two and a half years in community college, and several remedial math classes before getting to a math class which actually counted towards college credit, I registered for Finite Math. Just three weeks into the course, I was in so far over my head, I didn’t even know what questions to ask. Instead of numbers, finite math seemed to consist of letters, and I had no idea what to do with them. I walked into the office of the Mathematics Department Chair and told him of my struggles in this class. I asked him if I might be tested to determine if I had a learning disability in math. Over 23 years later, I still remember his smug sounding reply to me. He said, “You’ve only given it 3 weeks”. My reply to him was, “No sir, I’ve given it almost 20 years”. He said that he would allow me to go to the Student Disability Services office and arrange for testing, but said he knew I would not be found to have any learning disabilities, and that I simply hadn’t given the class enough time.
I went to the Student Disability Services office and arranged for the testing required to determine whether or not I had specific learning disabilities. After undergoing the testing, my results showed the there was a significant discrepancy between my verbal and written proficiency, which showed well above my age and grade level, and my mathematical skills, which showed I functioned around a 7th grade level, at the age of 19 and a ½. They said it showed that I had specific learning disabilities in both the areas of mathematics as well as how I processed information. It wasn’t that I could not process information; it was that it often took me significantly longer than others in my same age bracket to process, retain, and be able to prove on a test, my understanding of the information I was attempting to process. Finally, after many years of difficulty getting people to understand how hard I was trying, these tests results provided some validation of my struggle.
I did successfully complete community college and transfer to and graduate from University of Central Florida.
Another area of extreme difficulty for most of my life has been the workplace. I have worked since I was 17 years old, and though some jobs have been significantly better than others for me, the majority of jobs I have worked in have always come with a great degree of difficulty. Navigating office politics, dealing with co-workers here and there over the years who were downright nasty, as well as dealing with some very difficult bosses. Some people seem, even if they will never like office politics, to be able to not only successfully navigate them, but to thrive in offices, or other types of workplaces. For me though, the innate knowledge of how to do this was just never present in me. I have learned over the years, some ways of being that may be considered survival tactics for the workplace; things like knowing when to speak up and when not to, how to phrase things so that they have a better chance of being well received, and things such as that, but it has never come easily to me. I now wonder if it may just simply be more difficult for those who are neuroatypical to navigate the workplace, then it is for neurotypical folks.
Just as society-at-large seems to have always favored, or been easiest to navigate for people who are heteronormative, (aka straight, usually white and usually male), I believe the same holds true for people who are neurotypical, and that the world seems to favor them. I have also come to the following realization, after over 43 years on this planet: Trying to be neurotypical when you are not is like trying to be straight when you’re gay. You can try to navigate an inherently neurotypical world as though you were neurotypical yourself, but it’s like trying to walk up an escalator that is going down. And who wants to do that for your entire life?!
So here and now, I declare an end to trying to be something I am not. I am, at age 43 and a half, coming out as a proud neuroatypical! Can neuroatypicals successfully navigate an inherently neurotypical world? Absolutely! We just have to go about it differently. We have to play to our strengths, let employers know what valuable traits we can offer them, and make accommodations for ourselves when going into situations that may be otherwise overwhelming, just to name a few.
I hope those who may have struggled their entire lives with this, be heartened by these words and understand that I am speaking from my own, lived experience. May we who are neuroatypical learn to thrive and collaborate with our neurotypical counterparts in the world, cheer each other on, and recognize that no matter how each of our respective brains are wired, we all have something positive to offer this world, and even change it for the better.
*Anne Sabagh is a Certified Life Coach based in Northern Virginia. She sees clients in person at Goose Creek Consulting in Centreville, VA, as well as conducting coaching sessions via phone or web from anywhere. She specializes in working with people dealing with mental health concerns in order to help them develop their greatest mental wellness possible. She is a highly sensitive person and an empath. As such, Anne brings a great deal of empathy to her work with clients. She loves animals, music, and spending time with her family and friends. She lives in Northern Virginia with her wonderful husband Tony, and their beloved cat, Robin.